Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The land is sliding

My time in Bac Ha has rushed to an end as quickly as the beginning seemed to crawl. I had the company of a friend the last two days, a fellow English professor also traveling solo through Vietnam. We have a former student and friend in common, who put us in touch, and I am profoundly grateful for the chance to talk about our experiences for hours over coffee and other beverages that were not coffee. On Monday morning he leaves early to return the rented motorcycle and get the train to Hanoi. I have a few hours to make my goodbyes to the people I've come to know here, though there's a part of me that just wants to slip away without a word. I'm not sure I know how to do this.

The hardest parting will be with Hoa, the young woman who works at the Cong Fu with whom I've spent many hours working through English and Vietnamese words and sentences, she so much better at her new language than I am. I come by the hotel around 9:00, and we sit at the oversized table in the lobby, awkward and formal. She busies herself by working on the tea, and I rummage around in my bag for the ceramic Texas-themed shot glasses I’ve brought, trying to decide if they would appreciate that corny addition to the tea service at the hotel. I've already given her a personal gift of a small writing notebook. I plunge ahead and present the cheesy souvenirs from home, and everyone is kind of taken with the strange offering. I like that I leave a little bit of Texas there on the table. Hoa and I dance around the farewells a few more times, struggling to understand the platitudes we are each uttering, prolonging and complicating an already awkward situation. Making small talk, she asks if I get carsick, but it takes forever for me to figure what word she’s saying because I can’t see that one coming. She means airsick, but carsick is as close as she could. get Why is she asking me if I have cussing, because, hell yes, I do. Or maybe she wants to know if I have cashews. Or cousins. I don’t know, but I’m grateful for the distraction. Other employees and the manager come by for some solemn handshaking and promises that I stay at the Cong Fu next time I come to Bac Ha, and when am I coming back. Maybe one year. More bowing and nodding. Finally, Hoa and I have to make a final goodbye, and the semi-jerky manager breaks the ice a bit by making crying noises and laughing at us. It’s his final victory in the battle of wills we’ve waged these past weeks. You win -- I’ll cry. And Hoa and I both do, stepping outside for a little privacy. We clasp hands the Vietnamese way and then draw each other into a glancing hug -- very much not the Vietnamese way. I shove my sunglasses on my face even though it's raining and try not to let all the people on the curb and the stoops see that I'm crying, and make the same little circuit of town I’ve done every day when I was sure that no one knew or cared how I was feeling. This time my emotions are hanging out like a shirt-tail sticking out of my fly.

After a few more stops, I pack-up all my stuff and check-out. All I have to do is sit in this hot, dark, empty lobby at the Sao Mai for a half an hour for Thanh and his driver to arrive. I'm grateful that no one is around because it's midday on Monday, the slowest day of the week, and all the Vietnamese people are at home for lunch and naps.

Now I’m done; I’ve already departed emotionally, and just have to make it through the half-hour lag time between my mind and my body. But turns into an hour and a half because my ride is late. I’m sorry, Thanh says, we’re late because the land is sliding. He means that there was a landslide on the road and they were delayed, but I feel the same. The land is sliding, tilting me toward home.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

If it was easy, everyone would do it

This is a story about both the power and the limits of good intentions. I thought a lot about whether I should post it, but I’ve decided to do it anyway, with identifying information and real names omitted. I want to share because the questions it raises are complex and difficult, because it makes me try to puzzle through the hidden assumptions and partly submerged desires that animate the good intentions which brought me back to northwestern Vietnam this summer. Also, some of it's pretty funny.

I'm going with a small group of Americans affiliated with a US-based NGO to the village of Na Hoi, where they will teach a class to women on basic health and hygiene and work on a sand water filtration system they are installing. When we arrive in Na Hoi, a 10-minute drive from the hotel, the women take over the village meeting room and the men go off down the path to work on the filter. There’s the typical milling about and unpacking and setting up the laptop (oh, god, transnational, bilingual powerpoint hell?) before getting started at nine. We're early, and after a teacherly confab, it’s decided that we need to play a game to fill the extra 20 minutes. Ugh, my least favorite thing, but I’ll have to participate and be nice. The game goes like this, but takes several long minutes to explain and translation: we all stand in a circle with our legs apart and the person who is “it” pivots in the center and tries to throw a pink squiggly ball between someone’s legs; if it gets through, that person is "it." Grasping immediately the sexual innuendo of the game, the women are laughing and teasing each other. If N, K, and J get it, they betray not one wit of that, thus making the whole thing infinitely more hilarious, as the capri-panted women bounce up and down on the balls of their feet and wiggle their butts from side to side.

My hunch is that this game comes from a prepackaged development curriculum and that it’s supposed to be about sexually transmitted disease, but even then, the analogy breaks down, because once you fail to close your legs chastely, you become infected and then aggressively use force and deception to infect someone else -- for fun. Lesson, exactly? For the American women leading this exercise, it might as well be duck-duck-goose; they want to make sure everyone is included and has a turn at being “it.”

We all take our seats, all women now, the few curious men who were here before nine have gone, and the lesson begins. It will have three parts: hygiene, nutrition, and dental health. It is a five-paragraph theme. Part one is based on what I have to admit is an ingenious piece of curriculum, a richly illustrated, step-by-step overview of germ theory of contagion, graphically mapping the various vectors by which wee beasties travel from poop to mouth, with a little aside about sneezing (into your arm, not your hands! No one addressed the local snot-rocket epidemic.). Visual aids include a laminated drawing of a man taking a dump (cross-culturally hilarious), a plate of fake poop, and a giant plastic fly almost the size of the poop itself. N and K go at it with a verve of aggressiveness, to borrow the felicitous language the Sao Mai Hotel uses to describe its staff in its brochure. N is every inch the retired schoolteacher, urging, repeating, demanding response and participation. K is all Office of Human Resources, insisting that T translate the rules verbatim, stern, minatory. By the time we wrap up this topic by doing a group fist-pump cheer and chanting “No to germs,” (no translation -- English only), I’m worn out; it’s taken more than 30 minutes, and still two more paragraphs to go. If you gave me a quiz, I’d have to say the main take-away is about hand-washing. I’m all for it. In particular, however, it’s about the need to construct field hand-washing stations called Tippy-Taps, which hang on trees, of which there are few to none on the high slopes where they when tend their crops. It’s a great idea, to be sure, but it seems to me that any initiative that begins by asking these women to carry one more damn thing on their backs up the mountains is unlikely to gain much traction.

I can’t help thinking that the women in the audience must have thought it was a diverting and unusually theatrical discussion of poop.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Adventure comes in small packages

This trip isn’t supposed to be about big adventure, though I keep finding myself writing about that. It’s supposed to be about small adventure: finding a place, staying here through good days and bad, though my mood whipsaws back and forth in intervals much shorter than a day. It’s about trying to live here instead of visit here. The exceptional moments become not the high mountain passes and motorcycle rides, but when people greet me on the street, when I’m invited to sit with their family for a meal.

Sunday market day comes around for the third time, and although I don’t have much desire to go back down into the bowels of it anymore, the pull is hard to resist: a flood of women in their best elaborate dresses, some sporting little high heels underneath, surly buffalo, ponies, men eagerly awaiting the day’s drinking and card-playing. I’m headed that way when I get pulled aside by a large-ish woman in a conical hat. I recognize her; she’s the woman who worked in the kitchen at the Cong Fu, older and more stubbornly more “country” than the other employees, she rarely said a word to me, only shaking her head at what I did or did not eat. Now she wants me to sit down at a table outside what I now realize is the Cong Fu Restaurant, around the corner from the hotel. So I do, and order a coffee. She wants to know if I’m alright, if it’s ok at the Sao Mai. I reassure her I’m fine and that the Sao Mai isn’t as nice as the Cong Fu but that I needed the internet in order to work. I don’t know how much of that went through, but it seemed to be the first step in healing from the slightly less than amicable divorce between the Cong Fu and me. When I ask her for extra hot water to lengthen my powerful Vietnamese black coffee, she just plunks the battered metal thermos on the table, as if to say, you know how to do this, you’re one of us, not some exotic bird who just arrived in town. Soon, on foot, motorcycle, and bicycle several other employees from the hotel come by to shyly say hello, even the manager, who’s brought the magical shield of his adorable daughter with him. Now I know I can stop by the hotel for tea and there will be no hard feelings. I smile and nod a lot like an idiot from a Flannery O‘Connor story, but it works.

Realizing I can get all the pleasures of the market from this perch without having to walk through the mud and smoke and smell and umbrellas poking me in the eyes (because I'm so tall!), I think I’ll just have another coffee, and when it arrives, two scruffy looking guys from the UK turn up and take seats opposite me at the long table. I’m so happy for the English-speaking company that I babble on and on, but soon we settle into a normal rhythm, and I learn that they are both doing year-long trips around the world, just seeing where it takes them. Ian, who’s older, close to my age, I guess, and more serious, has worked for years for NGOs in Africa, has so many interesting things to say about western interventions -- tourism or other forms -- in the developing world. I feel very much the country mouse in this situation; it’s almost unimaginable to leave my life behind and just go for a year. I know so little. Still, Ian is interested in how I’ve weathered my puny one-month experience. When he asks if I would do it again, I surprise myself by saying, yes, but if you had asked me three days ago I would have said definitely not. What’s changed?

I appear to have made friends, is what’s changed. At this café I help the seasoned travelers order their coffee and tea in Vietnamese, and when the hotel manager’s daughter comes up to me and smacks her hands on my legs, the guys say, wow, she’s very friendly. No, it’s that I know her, I say.

As hot afternoon turns to evening, I sit on my balcony and try to work a little, but there’s too much to look at: the tide of people from this morning reverses, having traded one load for another, families walk back up the hills toward home; tourists wander back to the hotel and wonder what to do for their remaining 12 hours in town. I can see into the Hoang Yen from where I’m sitting, and watch to see when they’ll put their family dinner on the table. If I go over now, I know they’ll invite me to join them, and I’ve already done that twice and don’t want to take advantage. I wish I knew which was more impolite: to just show up and be fed, or to be implicitly expected and not show up. What I’m doing -- sort of alternating -- is probably the worst strategy, but I don’t know what else to do.

I can see they’ve cleared the big round rice cooker and most people have gotten up from the table, so I head down the 4 flights of stairs and across the street. There’s an awkward moment when I walk in, and I realize that they could see me the whole time and must have been wondering what I was thinking. Did I not want to eat their food? It’s the opposite: I’m too embarrassed to accept more of their generosity.

By the end of the evening, an quiet equilibrium is reached. I’ve worked for an hour with Bon revising the draft of a list of their trekking services that he has amazingly produced, considering he has taught himself English from television and sheer necessity. I put a copy on my flash drive and tell them I’ll take it home and work on it. Nghe won’t let me pay for dinner, but he takes money for the beer. I promise to come tomorrow night to talk about it. They’re expecting me.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Maybe kilometer has several meanings

Thao -- my guide for Saturday's fate-tossed hike -- is driving the motorcyle I'm clinging to the back of on an ass-rattling ascent up a dirt track to the starting point of today's hike. On a particularly steep patch, he asks, over the whine of the over-burdened engine, “how you way,” or something like that. I was still trying to figure it out in kilos when I felt the bike slow and waver and heard him clutching madly down through one gear and then another to wind up enough torque to haul my fat American ass up the mountain.

The motorcycles leave Ban, a guide with five years experience, and me in a high green valley, the hills corrugated with rice fields and dotted with a few small homes and villages. We’re high up the ridge, but not high enough, so we start up on what's supposed to be a 15k hike. No chance to ease into it and alert the legs, all bowed and stove-up from the ride, of the work to come. We just start up. It’s only a little after nine, but full sun and getting hot. I’ll not make the same mistake I made last time of getting into deficit so early, so it’s slow and steady, keeping the rhythm by shortening and lengthening the steps as the trail steepens and levels a little. Place each foot, get full extension, breathe, back off when you feel the lactic acid coming on, try not to anticipate. It’s more than an hour up, but on a path that mixes steep with gradual. On a narrow trail skirting the edge of the hillside, I’m surprised to see a small black dog come up and overtake us, followed soon after by a Hmong family with two ponies in tow, walking up to the their fields on the high slopes. They have reed baskets on their backs and carry heavy hoes on their shoulders. They must have already been walking for hours, and will work all day in the sun before walking all the way back down to wherever home is. Before long they disappear around a curve, moving faster than us. I’ll be taking advil and writing about this tomorrow, and they’ll be doing it again.

There are more shades and textures of green than I knew existed, even a few stands of tall pine trees that used to forest these hills before they were taken over by agriculture, and thus became dangerously prone to tumbling down onto each other and everything in their paths. I don’t know how policy-makers are supposed to solve this problem: it’s hard to convince people that they need trees to look at more than they need food to eat. The sinuous beauty of the rice fields makes you almost forget how labor-intensive this crop is. I tried to ask both guides, is there any time of the year when rice doesn’t need hands-on care? Both of them just shook their heads: maybe they didn’t understand the question, or maybe it was just patently absurd.

For lunch we sit in the child-size chairs at the tiny table inside a small Hmong house, enjoying the shade and the breeze that blows now and then across the valley and through the reed wall of the house. I notice a small red plastic mirror nailed to a post. Oh, yes, to keep out evil spirits; I’ve read about that. Then I see the comb. Nope, just a mirror. Reminds of my first stay in Sapa when I heard from my hotel balcony a tinny and mournful song coming from the distance and was moved by the thought of the local people mourning a death or or summoning the ancestors. It was probably someone warbling Stairway to Heaven at a karaoke bar.

After lunch, Ban says it’s two or two and a half hours more to go, mostly downhill, which sounds just about perfect to me. So, off we go. But, no, there’s been a discussion with the local man about a shortcut, which would supposedly take an hour off the trip. Uh, ok, but this has not gone well recently. First, the backtracking, and then the turning down a narrow muddy track, and I’m getting a sinking déjà vu feeling. But Ban is a very experienced guide, so surely this won’t turn out badly. Wearing just well-used running shoes, I’m finding the steep, muddy, rocky descent very uncomfortable. It’s hard on the feet, but it also calls for a measure of agility that I don’t seem to be able to muster. Maybe this is an age thing, but I’m afraid of falling and hurting myself. Some scrapes and bruises are not problem, but a badly sprained ankle, a blown-out knee, snapped fibula, or a head banged on a rock would be beyond my field medicine limits. I don’t want to have to solve a problem of that magnitude and urgency. So I go very slowly, and, I’ll admit, start to complain when the trail heads toward the rice fields and begins to pick its way along dikes and down spill-offs. Coming to yet another place where muddy track braids into another equally unpromising one, we meet an old woman who has harvested her corn and spread it on a tarp; she’ll then load it up and carry it on her back up the hill we’ve just come down. She says, pointing out the small house across the valley, that it’ll take us an hour and a half to walk there. She’s so wrong; we make in in 89 minutes.

Now we have to walk the rocky, sunny (why, oh why, is there not one measly cloud today?) road all the way back up this side to where we can at least get cell phone service, call the office and find out how far away it is to Ban Voi, where we’re supposed to be picked up. Finally stumbling into the shade of the porch of a school, I lie back on the cool-ish cement and Ban calls. To his surprise -- not to mention mine -- it’s another 10k to Ban Voi. We have already been walking for 6 hours on this supposedly 15k hike. This time I don’t have to be the one to call for 2-wheel rescue; Ban’s already on it.

Shortly into the ride down the rutted and rocky descent, however, I’m wishing I had walked that 10k. We got ourselves sandwiched between one hulking, belching, dirt-throwing truck over-laden with projectiles-in-waiting covered by a half-assed tarp, and its evil twin menacing us from behind, sometimes less than 10 yards away. Thao is my driver again, and he somehow manages to bounce and fish-tail and downshift and skid and flat-out will us down the hill, peering through a dense cloud of dust and fumes, when one slip would send us to certain death under the wheels of the truck. I almost forgot to worry about brake failure on the part of our pursuer.

At long last at Ban Voi we stop for a cold drink and to let the bikes cool off before heading up the pass to Bac Ha. The woman who runs what amounts to the convenience store there at the fork in the road is pouring gasoline from one worn jerry can to another, sloshing it down the side and on to the cement. Then she siphons it into green glass 1-liter beer bottles and expertly upends them into the gas tank of the motorcycles. The air is hazy with fumes, and an old man comes over to the table looking for the ubiquitous bong, which as it happens is right between my legs. Having just escaped death by motor vehicle, I’ll be damned if I’m going to die in a bong-related explosion. I pretend I don’t notice him and refuse to move. Sometimes being the giant, rude, clueless foreigner pays off.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Thank you for visiting. Now please go away.

Hospitality conventions in this part of Vietnam are built more for one-night stands than long term relationships. We’ll all do just fine so long as we have a lot of fun and we don't have time to get on each others' nerves. I may give you an awkward cup of coffee in the morning, but then please gather up your crap and go. And, no, there will not be clean sheets and towels and declarations of affection.

Yesterday began and ended well, but there was one bad episode in the middle when I got into an argument with the hotel manager (over internet access -- again), which, though I think I prevailed, left me feeling ashamed and unwelcome at the place where I plan to stay another 12 days (not that I’m counting). And because I have no one to confide in, or even talk to I second-guessed not only my reaction to the situation, but reading of it in the first place. Did I think he was saying table when he was really saying cable? Was I the giant jerk in this drama? I realized then that I’m working from the assumption, which has a lot to do with unexamined white privilege, I ashamed to say, that people will basically be nice to me in whatever transactions we manage to cobble together, that they will be grateful for my presence and will forgive my transgressions as if I were a poorly socialized child or a doughty old person. In truth, I don’t just expect people to be nice to me, I assume they’ll like me. But why would they? The people I interact with every day must have the same kinds of gnawing annoyed reactions to my habits and practices -- the way I move in space, and eat, and drink -- that I guiltily admit I have to theirs. Dealing with these things once or twice is fine, but difference can be abrasive, and the points of contact get raw and exposed over time like blisters.

Here’s what gets on my nerves: the insanely loud slurping noises while eating soup; crew socks with dress loafers; looking over my shoulder at my computer screen if I happen to be using it downstairs; how the men sit around and drink all the tea but always expect the woman to get up and replenish the supplies; the littering and spitting; and the shouting, dear god, the shouting. I'm just bracketing out the horn-honking.

I’ll guess what they hate about me: that I won’t go away, won’t leave the hotel all day on outings and look at stuff so they can sit around the lobby and nap and play computer games and smoke that stinky bong that sits in the bucket; that I drink beer and water straight out of the bottle; that I want fresh towels every few days; that I don’t speak their language; that I’m so physically large and white and sweaty. Mostly, they probably just wish I would go away because my presence makes things so much more difficult. I’m sure it’s not just the Cong Fu or this particular manager (who is arguably the worst hotel manager ever), it’s that my overstaying the duration of a conventional visit has exposed the fault lines in a much larger system: east meets west, privilege meets the developing world. The fledgling tourism industry in Vietnam is the laboratory where they forces collide.

The manager isn't very easy to deal with. He seems lazy and surly and unhelpful and sometimes downright deceitful in his attempts to maintain his strict standards of laziness and unhelpfulness. His staff is cheerful, eager, and very hard-working. And bewildered most of the time. His bilious temperament notwithstanding, the breakdown in hospitality conventions isn’t really his fault. Vietnam has watched Thailand, Cambodia, and even Lao capture big hunks of the Southeast Asia tourism market, and they want their share. Yes, there are models of how it can be done: fancy resorts at the beaches and luxury hotels in HCMC and Hanoi with multilingual staff and ice cubes in the drinks, but the people who work here have never been there.

They’ve never been anywhere. I can’t yet determine if they don’t have any desire to travel -- can’t understand why anyone would do it -- or if they just shelved the ambition long ago because they know they won’t able to, because it requires leisure time and cash, which they do not have. I’ve never heard a young Vietnamese person say, “I’d like to go there,” even in response to my telling them about another place in their own country. So, you have drivers who barely know how to drive, or only know how to drive, and waiters who may have never eaten in a restaurant, guides who never been beyond their local and learned routes, and hotel managers who have never stayed at a hotel. As you can imagine, this leads to problems. Every request from a hotel guest probably sounds idiosyncratic and bitchy. When they hear, do you have a newspaper? Can you recommend a restaurant? May I move to a room where the toilet doesn’t leak? Must they chisel the tiles off the wall right outside my window at 6:00 am? They must think, who the hell do you think you are? We put a copy of the rules on a faded, misspelled photocopy in a sad page protector in your room, gave you a sliver of Camay and a little ration of toilet paper, and turn the electricity on for you most of the time, what more do you expect?

We're all in unknown territory here, but if we're stuck together like a snowbound one-night stand, we might as well work on it. I was helping Hoa with her English this morning and wrote out a list of questions that I thought guests may ask and others that she might ask guests. She was stumped by “may I have a wake-up call,” but admired the novel concept once she got it. Borrowing from the Lonely Planet Phrasebook, I also included, “do you have an adaptor plug,” but made no headway in explaining what is was until I went upstairs and got mine and showed her how it worked. I also had to explain that people from different parts of the world would need differently configured ones. Why anyone would need one at all was a revelation to her. Moving to the other list, she was very pleased to pronounce “are you happy with your room” perfectly, and glad to know “is there anything else I can get for you?” for waitressing.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Shut up and walk

Let me shut up. All the stuff I wrote before about the abstract joys of walking? I couldn’t be more full of shit if I were a port-o-john at a curry cook-off. The walk I did on Saturday not only kicked my ass; it took it prisoner and sent it to re-education camp. In retrospect it had all the elements of a classic clusterfuck: incomplete information, hasty prepration, inexperienced guide, and some very bad weather luck. Add to that a major language barrier and the poor infrastructure of a very undeveloped part of a developing nation. At least it only cost $24, plus the soaked and limp $5 bill I tipped the hapless guide, who almost wept with apology at several points along the way.

He wasn’t the only one near tears. I knew it would be a demanding hike in the first place. The woman at the restaurant who booked it, who herself admitted she hated to walk, said it was about 20k and there was a mountain. I should be able to do that without too many problems, other than I hadn’t eaten very much in the past several days. Just less of me to haul up and down, I figure. I should have known it wasn’t going to turn out well when the first hour was a blisteringly hot climb up the mountain we had come down on by motorcycle to Can Cau market. On that climb I remembered I had forgotten sunscreen. Uh oh. I can also tell, but shove the thought to the back of my mind, that this first hour has been very costly metabolically speaking, and that I’m already dehydrated and don’t have enough water. Surely he’s brought more, or there will be someone selling bottles at one of the scenic and charming villages we will surely walk through. Because if I know one thing about Vietnam it’s that there’s always someone there to sell you something. I’m always amazed how you come up the top of a high pass on an unpaved road in some remote part of some remote province, and right there on the shoulder of the road in the mist are women under blue tarps selling plums and tea and Fanta and sticky rice stuffed inside bamboo, and some unmentionable bits charring on hibachis. So, surely, we will be able to restock water.

At the top of the mountain we turn off onto a dirt path, winding down and along the ridge, more pleasant than the hot road with its blaring, belching trucks and minibuses. But this is just the beginning of a series of increasing narrow, muddy, and often dead-end paths we will follow ever deeper into hiking purgatory. There’s so much doubling-back and gaining and losing and gaining back precious feet of elevation that I have no way to know how long we ultimately walked. I do know that it took the better part of eight hours, which, to be fair includes the break we took when we had to plummet down a muddy hill to the Hmong house to take shelter from the pounding rain. Of course by then I’d already slipped and fallen on my butt in the mud (and probably some species of ubiquitous dung) and my shoes and socks are soaked and caked. But here’s where things take a turn for the worse.

Tao and I have a “conversation” about what to do now. I say that it’s time to bail out, though not in those words, to call the office and the other guys on the motorcycles and have them meet us. We’ve walked a long way already and are too wet and muddy and the paths are too treacherous. And we’re out of water. With all the nodding and smiling and agonized apologizing I have no doubt that he agrees with me. But he doesn’t; he doesn’t have any idea what I said. So when we start back up the mountain we have just come down in search of a path he will not find, I think we’re on the way to the road and a ride, and I’ve calibrated my mood and my energy expenditures accordingly. He’s talking and texting away; evacuation plans must be in motion. After another hour or so, I’m frustrated and confused. Why, oh, why is this taking so long? But, finally --mirabile visu -- up ahead at the top of this long climb is a village where surely there is water and a road and waiting motorcycles. How long, I ask. Ten minutes. I swear he said ten minutes, but I guess it could have been an aural hallucination. Thirty minutes later we get to the village, which is certainly some failed socialist experiment in rural living because it’s dominated by a large building with a locked gate and there are no people to be seen. There is also no water and no road to speak of. And there are no waiting motorcycles.

Three hours to Bac Ha, he says. My turn to almost cry. I takes me a very long time to communicate that I will not be able to walk for 3 hours with no water: I have to have some soon, or I’ll be sick. I sit on the steps of the locked-up building until Tao returns with water, probably from someone’s house: please let it be boiled or filtered. A liter later and I’m ready to go. It is 5k to Bac Ha, he says, all flat and downhill. Great, we’ll be there in a little over an hour. He says it’s three hours. Two and a half hours later when I can finally see Bac Ha far below, I have to concede he was right, but that was a LOT farther than 5k. Now, I’m really tired, and this rock-strewn path is killing my feet.
I’m not sure my I was aware that my lizard brain had been plotting my revolt, but apparently it had been at work at it for some time. When we come down the hill into Ban Pho village -- where I’ve walked several times and know that it’s 2k to town -- and he says it is less than 1 kilometer to go, I just pull up and stop. I’m done; call the motorcycle.

As usual, it takes a while to make my point, but when he finally understands he‘s shocked by the novelty of the idea. Call for the motorcycles? I never heard of such a thing! What a radical thought!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

More about walking and knowing

[Tried to post this on Friday, then was out all day Saturday, so here it is, the belated story from Thursday]

Yesterday’s walk was all about the comforts of reiteration, the knowledge that comes from re-inscribing. I wanted to walk the same path I knew, so I could say to myself: there’s where the men were loading the corn onto the pony that the women had gathered; there’s where the the skirts of the Flower Hmong were drying on the wall, semi-circles of brilliance against mud and dust; there’s where the children ran out of the house to say hello. For a few moments I want to not learn something new; I want to already know something. This got me thinking about my relationship with learning and knowledge.

In academia we say we like to learn, to experience a new field or an unread book as an open prairie. An epistemelogical song of the lark moment. But, really, it’s temporary, or, rather, artificial, contrived. It’s like a carnival ride that simulates tumbling and falling and not knowing up from down, but we never genuinely lose our bearings. In a sense we come to know new things because we already know them, never truly losing our place on the map of the known and knowing world. We have access to powerful uses of language, unlimited resources, and people around us who know why we ask the questions we do. This, on the other hand, is real not knowing, and I am not used to it.

I did not know; I have not known; I shall not have know; I will not know. That’s my condition in all its conjugational permutations. I did not know, for example, when I got back from my walk yesterday, hot, and red as a tomato, how long the power had been off and when it would come back on. I deduced it was off in the whole town because the squawking loud speaker was silent. I tried to ask someone in the hotel, but couldn’t formulate the right question or understand the responses. So I just hosed myself off with cool water, closed my windows and curtains against the afternoon sun, and lay down on the bed to wait. As it got closer to sundown, panic crept in. What would happen when there was no more light even to read? How would food be cooked for dinner? Can I just go to bed in this stifling room at 7:30 and hope to be awakened in the middle of the night with the lights and the a/c coming back on? It’s not the heat, or even the palpable humidity, it’s the close darkness of aloneness and not-knowing. So, the sun went behind the mountain, and dusk came to the town, and the streets filled with families. The sun off my balcony, I pulled out my chair, got a Bia Ha Noi from the now sweating cooler downstairs and watched everyone adjust. Dinner came later tonight, the ladies who walk the circuit around town in their plastic sandals doing those wacky floppy Vietnamese exercise arm movements came out a little later. Everyone adjusts to what is there and what is not. It’s possible to be and to not know, but it feels like somersaulting through space.

The walk that was supposed to be about reiteration turned out not to be. A dog that didn’t chase me the first time, did this time; they are about to kill a pig up ahead and I have to turn back

Walking with myself

Today is the 4th day (is that all??!) that I've been on my own here, figuring out where and what to eat, eating alone, dong managing (that's the currency, but, oh, I never tire of the puerile jokes), filling the hours of the day, and holding back tides of anxiety that make me feel like I should always be doing something more or other than I am. One voice in my head says, you should be out there, in there, EXPERIENCING stuff all the time. But the other voice says, no, that's the tourist impulse, to collect and fetishize experience, to skim across and sail around the daily rhythms of life in a place that is, after all, to the people who live here, ordinary, home. There's no avoiding the sensation and the fact of being strange, of course, and I can't make myself at home here, but I can try, well, to live deliberately, to be both self-reliant and alert to the moments of connection that come unbidden and pass so quickly. But unlike Thoreau, I want right now less to get away and more to come back, to be a little less in my head: I want to be a swinger of birches, not a hoer of beans.

And so I have been taking walks. The first day, down the hill, through the outskirts of town and into one small village after another, then back up into town the other way, men staring and some glaring, women smiling and waving, children waving and shouting "hello goodbye." See, that wasn't so bad? The next day, a little more courage is required to take the major road going the other way, following as it narrows and begins to climb into the hills. I pass a Hmong family and their pony: stares all around, and one shy smile. Where am I going so purposelessly and why am I not carrying anything? Why am I so sweaty?

The third day, a little more courage still. I stop at a cafe that says they have tourist information, but all they really have is a hand-drawn, 4th-generation xerox of a map, with three things in the legend: Bac Ha, the Hoang Yen Cafe, and The Road. Not helpful, but I take it anyway. I decide I can do the Ban Pho village loop, the walk that I did with Thanh last week and that all tourists do when they come here for their one day because I think I remember the way. But there will be no one else here this early in the week. When I get to Ban Pho I pass the turn that makes the loop and just decide to keep going a little bit, following the road as it begins to switchback up the mountain, opening views of terraced rice fields and small stands of corn on the high slopes. At the top of the pass where the road turns to mud there is a village of a few Hmong houses and a scary dog, so I turn back: about time anyway, as it's taken me over and hour to get here and I don't have much water. I keep thinking, I've always wanted to be the kind of person who can do this, but mostly I feel like I'm pretending -- or practicing? -- to be her.

Monday, July 6, 2009

A view from the Cong Fu

They are constructing a building next door to my hotel, almost right outside my room, and I am watching it from my balcony. Like all VN buildings it is narrow and extends far to the back. Because it is also built into the hilly terrain of Bac Ha, there are two stories in the back below the one that will be street level in the front. You can see the storeys are supported by unmilled poles from one of the many deforested hillsides surrounding town. Today they are pouring concrete despite intermittent light rain and saturated humidity. Here’s how they’re doing it.

An ancient cement mixer throttles away at a small makeshift ramp at the front. From time to time it sputters to a stop, coughs, and gives up. A guy comes over with a big crank and winds it up like a Model T. Then the hive of workers also cranks back into motion. On one side of the mixer is a big pile of rough gravel, on the other a mountain of sand. A man shovels gravel into beautiful shallow woven bowl-shaped baskets, then he and the carrier together lift it high enough for carrier to swing underneath it, rest it on his head, walk the few steps to the mixer, tip it in and come back for another. The same process is repeated on the sand side. A man carries 10-gallon buckets of water filled from a hose across the street from which buckets are dipped and added to the mix in whatever proportions someone deems appropriate. One of them must be in in charge of the mix, but who knows according to what engineering principles: more master baker than science.

The mixture flows out to be shoveled by another stooping man into the waiting bucket of one of the two-person carrying teams. They lower their pole, unhook the bucketand if they are lucky the timing is right, someone else shovels it full. If not, then one of them bends over and fills it. Then they pivot, lower themselves to a deep squat and shoulder it, walk up the uneven ramp, tightrope across the naked rebar and deliver it to the men pouring the slab at the rear. Each trip will get incrementally shorter but the load no lighter. One of the teams’ bucket only gets about ¾ of a load because they are very slight people. One of them is a woman, possible a teenager, but I can’t tell because her conical hat is tipped low and she is wearing a cloth over her face in a futile attempt to protect against dust and fumes. Her partner is a whisper-thin teenage boy, possibly more like a child. Most of them are walking across the rebar and steering around heavy equipment in flop-flops; a few have rubber rain boots. No one is wearing a hardhat, though a few have green pith helmets. Most wear baseball caps. There is a choreographed beauty to this, and a egalitarian peasant purity that would make the socialist architects proud, I’m sure, but the ideological virtues are surely lost on those doing this dangerous, loud, filthy, and underpaid work. Is this someone’s house? A new hotel? Will someone make money with this building, whatever it is? Will they ever set foot in it?

A 10-minute break comes at 8:45. The mixer arrived on site at 4:45 -- I know because it woke me up. During the break the woman who runs the little shop next door serves them from a large jug of bottled water. Even local people can’t drink water that comes from the tap, if they are privileged enough to live in a house with plumbing at all. One thin middle-aged man retrieves the 2-ft long bamboo bong to dip in a bucket and have a hit or two of tobacco. A Flower Hmong woman walks up to the shopkeeper, her extravagantly colored clothes a contrast to the dust-coated workers, unloads fresh corn from her reed basket backpack, sells a few ears, loads up, and walks on. The mixer belches back into life and the rough ballet of shoveling, lifting, and toting goes on.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Bac Ha, the beginning

July 4, 2009, Bac Ha
First morning waking up in the Cong Fu Hotel, where I’ve committed to staying and writing for the month. It’s 5:35 and a couple of hotel employees are having a lively conversation about something and just basically yelling their asses off, the voices bouncing up the marble stairways and rattling around the building. If I understood more than a few words of Vietnamese, I’d be able to understand them as if they were standing in this room. And then, coming in from outside, the propaganda loudspeakers have just started. Is that the VN anthem I hear? And some inspirational words about work? Warnings about social evils -- one of which is apparently sleeping past 6:00. Perhaps some deal could be arranged whereby loudspeaker sponsored the now moribund wifi service. I could take it, I swear.

So, the promised wifi service is “broken,” and “needs a part from Hanoi, we’re told. I had no idea wireless routers had “parts.” What do need here, a flange? Bushing? a timing belt? Sheesh. I’ll be able to plug my netbook into their connection for a few minutes a day, but will have to sit in a corner in the lobby and shove aside one of the two big computers they available for guests (and teenage boys from town). On the bright side, the internet on these two didn’t work at all during the days we were here last year. Progress.

Arrived last night in hour 40 of total elapsed travel time since I left my house in Austin, and had a bit of a struggle getting a suitable room, one that did not have two tiny twin beds, had a/c, and a balcony. I ended up on the front side of the building, which isn’t ideal (see loudspeaker), but I do have the other features, and a bed no softer than the well-padded dinner table. I had remembered the Cong Fu as more luxurious than it is, but it’ll be okay.

Thanh and I had a light dinner at a restaurant we had visited last year, which appears to be something of a gathering place for locals and those working in the tourist industry. You notice ruddy-looking middle aged Dutch couples in specialty trekking pants, and other typical western tourists eating in one room, while their guide shares tea and other kinds of food and swaps stories with owners and other guides in the front room. Last night Thanh and I sat in the front room, but not at that “cool” kids table. But after dinner we did get up and move over there and talked some business about the school. Met Mr Sa, the man who owns the resort just outside of town, which we’ll go look at today, and Mrs [TK], an entrepreneurial sort who owns the restaurant and hotel, and whose brother, they say, is the minister of minority affairs for the government. He could be a big asset in negotiating some of our bureaucratic obstacles, and she, of course, owns a construction company. See how well that works together?

The plan for this raining morning is to have breakfast in the hotel and then take the motorcycle out to a market, then maybe meet with one of the school teachers, see Sa’s place, browbeat the hotel staff about the wireless service, and whatever else we can get into. Thanh is good at making plans, but I never seem to know what they are, so I’ll just dress for riding in the rain and mud and will see what happens next.

Aghhhh….the loudspeaker! You win: your music is most patriotic and inspirational, yes, it is best to work hard for the fatherland, work is happiness. Okay, now please stop. Where is Bart Simpson when you need him?

Monday, June 29, 2009

Returning and Beginning

I posted below the update on my involvement with a project to build an elementary school in northern Vietnam. It's the same thing I posted on facebook, so many of you will have already seen it.

I'm leaving on Weds, July 1 to spend a month in Bac Ha, where rumor has it the internet access has vastly improved since last year. I'll be using this space to share thoughts and photos, and will also write a brief version of how this school project got started in the first place and what we did and where we went last summer when technological obstacles thwarted my blogging ambitions.

An update about the school building project in Vietnam

Dear Friends,
I'm way overdue in sending this update about the project of building the elementary school in northern Vietnam that many of you have so generously contributed to. We have made great progress toward raising the amount needed for basic construction, and hope to have secured all the necessary permissions in order to build in November.

I'm pasting below an excerpt from a letter that Phil (Deering, my Minneapolis-based partner in the project) wrote. But first, an update to the update: I will be in the village of Bac Ha, the market town closest to the school, for the month of July, working with local contacts and writing about the process, the people, and the region. I'll be posting updates on my facebook page (be my friend, if we aren't already) as well as on my (now moribund, but soon to be lively) blog (www.brightenthecorner.blogspot.com).

Here's what Phil wrote:

We want to update you on progress (and some minor setbacks), so that you'll know that your money is being put to good use.

When we returned from Vietnam last June, we had our mission clear: to build a new school in the village of Tong Thoung. Here's what we've accomplished:

1. We've raised over $23,000 dollars – enough to build the two-room school as planned.

2. We have a complete architectural building plan, which has been reviewed and approved our friends at Sunflower Mission.

3. We have strong support from the local community

And here are the setbacks:

1. Phil was laid off from his job this winter. With tight personal finances,he wasn't able to go to Vietnam. As a result, we have to put the actual building off until November, 2009.

2. We've had consistent problems with the bureaucracy in Hanoi, and getting official Vietnamese Non- Governmental Organization (NGO) status for Sunflower Mission (our sponsoring US non-profit). This prevents us from some advantages that we would get from oversight by the federal government, but is really a minor inconvenience, since we are well positioned at the local level.

The plan is for Phil and Elisabeth to go to Vietnam in November of this year and work with a local company to build the school.

The children of Tong Thoung still need your help. Especially, help from young people in the US. Here's some things that would be really great:

1. If you or your school, religious group, or other group like Girl or Boy Scout troop would like to take on Tong Thoung school as a service project, please let us know. We have lots of support material to share and can promise an interesting and rewarding project.

2. If you want to make another donation that we will use to buy school materials or add to the basic plan to further improve the school with electrical generators, better hygiene facilities, etc. please make a check to: Sunflower Mission – BacHa School Project, and send it to Phil or Elisabeth (just ask for mailing address).

And now a final word from me (Elisabeth)...
Thank you for your interest and your support -- financial and otherwise. One of the greatest joys of this project for Bruce and me is witnessing the flowering of generosity from so many extraordinary friends, relatives, and colleagues. For more pictures and some video see www.bachaschool.org.

Elisabeth and Bruce (who won't be able to go to Vietnam, but whose love and support make it possible for me to go)
Our friend and translator Thanh talking with a student at the school
Children in class